The opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is based on the argument that the damage they cause to the environment may be irreversible; that a few large companies are on the lookout to control potentially huge markets; that US political and economic interests, with the active support of the European Commission, are trying to achieve world domination.
The commercial cultivation of GMOs is expanding rapidly. In 2000, GMO crops covered about 45 million hectares worldwide, 68% in the United States, 23% in Argentina, 7% in Canada and 1% in China . Corn and soybeans accounted for four-fifths of these crops, followed far behind by rapeseed, cotton, and potatoes. The annual turnover in the world seed market is more than 45 billion dollars, but 80% of farmers, particularly in the south, keep their seeds from one year to the next and trade with their neighbors before buying them. The agrarian multinationals want to expand in three ways: more countries, more trade, more varieties.
Their activities are not limited to planting, they also produce and market herbicides, pesticides and pharmaceutical products. Monsanto, Syngenta, Aventis, Dupont, Dow and a few more dominant companies in the sector are the product of mergers and acquisitions by creating internal synergies. They claim to be in the life sciences business but the idea is to patent genes, seeds and all associated technologies with the ultimate goal of effectively controlling agriculture in the world.
In the US, firms have to obtain permission from the US Department of Agriculture to place a new variety of GMOs on the market. Of the 87 applications for new varieties submitted since 1992, 45 (more than half) were submitted by Monsanto (now merged with Upjohn, Calgene, DeKalb and Asgrow). Next comes Aventis (which now includes AgrEvo and Plant Genetic Systems), with 18%, and Syngenta (which now includes Ciba, Novartis, Northrup and Zeneca), with 9%. Then come Dupont and Dow. In the US, five firms led by Monsanto control almost 90% of the planting of GMOs, along with associated pesticides and herbicides. And nothing will stop them from silencing their opponents.
Two research scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, made a strong point of this. In November 2001 they published an article in the newspaper Nature , reporting that evidence of GMO corn had been found in indigenous varieties of Mexican corn. This was serious, since Mexico is the native land of all the corn in the world. His government had declared a moratorium on the cultivation of GMO corn in 1998, to protect its irreplaceable genetic heritage, although biotech firms continue to test in fields across the country. The authors also reported that GMO DNA had become fragmented and was moving unpredictably within the local maize genome. Their first finding (contamination) could not be questioned, but the second was quite a shock: it undermined the biotech industry that claimed that genes never moved from the precise place where they had been introduced in the genome.
In 1997 Monsanto's campaign for GMOs brought them to the brink of ruin. To avoid making the same mistake again, they hired the Bivings Group, a public affairs firm specializing in internet strategies. The agency organized an online campaign to discredit the Berkeley investigative team. He enlisted scientists with industry contacts to challenge his conclusions and allegedly even invented fictional characters to give the debate a more acid tone .
This campaign was a success. Nature took the unprecedented step of publishing a denial and has yet to publish the findings of Mexican scientists confirming those of their Berkeley colleagues.
Unlike the French scientific and medical system, the British Medical Association, the Royal Society, and many independent UK research scientists have investigated the dangers of planting GMO crops in the open field . Pollen is known to pass regularly between GMOs and cultivated or wild plants. Depending on the harvest and the type of pollination, the contamination can spread far beyond the official limits imposed to protect neighboring fields. And other species, like closely related ones, are contaminated. We know that if the GMO testing ground becomes widespread, soon organic farming will be impossible, an economically promising path for development will be closed and farmers will no longer have freedom of choice. We also know that although GMOs are designed to resist herbicides and pesticides, they generate weeds and large predators and that these may invade the genetic heritage on which agriculture depends and reduce its variety. Harvesting GMOs, except indoors, is an irreversible act of ecological madness.
In Canada, where commercial production of genetically modified oil rape began just six years ago, the Agricultural Research Center of Canada in Saskatoon reports that "disseminated pollen and seeds are so widespread that it is difficult to plant conventional or organic strains without are contaminated. " In an attempt to deflect criticism from Canadian farmers, Monsanto has had to send teams to weed the genetically modified oil rape by hand in fields where it had never been sown. Specially selected to resist herbicides, it is now "impossible to control" according to a scientist at the University of Manitoba . The life sciences business runs as if Darwin never existed, as if resistance to pesticides and herbicides is not growing, generation after generation; as if the disastrous experiment with DDT never happened. Its biological bomb will produce catastrophes of the magnitude of what happened in Chernobyl.
Is the introduction of GMOs justified by its benefits, even in the short term? Not even that. Despite multi-billion dollar subsidies, American farmers who enthusiastically joined the venture have lost a lot of money, and have also had to deal with ultra-resistant plant diseases . The only ones who benefit from GMO crops are the big biotech firms and their political supporters in the US and Europe.
Can the hungry afford not to use GMOs? The media was scandalized when Zambia rejected shipments of maize containing GMOs supplied by the US food aid program. They forgot to point out that the aid came in the form of grain and Zambian farmers reportedly saved some of it for planting. The problem would not have occurred if the corn had been given in the form of flour. The Zambians wanted to avoid irreversible damage to their crops, which would have prohibited them from exporting to the European Union. American food aid rarely arrives without commercial implications.
A small African country should not be neglected, but Europe remains the main market for GMO products, especially corn and soybeans. In 1999 the EU declared a moratorium on GMO imports  and the US threatened to file a complaint against the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) of the World Trade Organization (WTO), as a deterrent to countries like Brazil and Mexico, which had taken similar measures. The issue was downplayed to avoid giving arguments to the Greens in last year's French and German elections, but has now returned to the Oval Office of the White House .
In January, US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick described the European measures as immoral and announced his intention to refer the matter to the DSB. But he has had to back down because the State Department and the Bush team didn't want any more trouble with Europe amid the diplomatic crisis over Iraq. These considerations did not influence Congress. In early March, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley, senator from the agrarian state of Iowa, complained that $ 300 million had been lost in sales to Europe: the situation was unacceptable and the government had to do something , and fast .
Discrepancies within the US executive only existed in terms of forms and means. The goal is clear: no to the moratorium, no to localization or labeling regulations. Nonetheless, Washington sees encouraging signs from the European Commission. It is well known that the commissioner, Pascal Lamy, is strongly in favor of ending the moratorium. In Europe, he says, it could be replaced by tracing and labeling rules that the WTO could accept.
Once these rules are adopted, the Commission could bring a dispute before the Court of Justice in Luxembourg against any member state that refused to end the moratorium. This was the subtext of the communiqué from the EU agricultural commissioner Franz Fischler to his US partners: "We will do everything we can to show that it is true when we say that we are in favor of biotechnology" .
Fischler will effectively do everything he can: declare the idea of GMO crops coexisting with traditional and biological agricultural methods, which he presented to his commission colleagues on March 6 and which will form the basis of a round table with all interested parties this month. Despite all the evidence from independent sources, particularly the ones cited above, he considers that coexistence is not an environmental problem, it simply raises legal and economic questions. He believes that the time has come for farmers of non-GM crops to take the necessary steps to protect themselves against the risk of contamination with GMO crops. The polluter pays, but not in this case. Due to the principle of subsidies, it rules out any possibility of presenting annoying community legislation. Such determination to defend American multinationals, for what the European Commission is supposed to be, falters. The fight against this political-genetic-industrial truck is a matter of public health.
Original title: Europe’s harvest of contamination - Author: Susan George - Origin: Le Monde Diplomatique
Translated by Genoveva Santiago and revised by Joana Llinàs
1 Deborah B Whitman, "Genetically Modified Foods: Harmful or Helpful?" Cambridge Science Abstracts, April 2000.
2 David Quist and Ignacio Chapela, "Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico", Nature, vol. 4141, London, November 29, 2001.
3 See George Monbiot's research, "The Fake Persuaders", The Guardian, London, May 29, 2002.
4 "Genetically Modified Plants for Food Use", The Royal Society, London, September 1998; "The Impact of Genetic Modification on Agriculture, Food and Health: an Interim Statement", British Medical Association, London, 1999; "The Health Impact of GM Crop Trials", BMA, November 2002.
5 Genetically modified canola becoming a weed, "Canadian Broadcasting Company, CBC News website, June 22, 2002.
6 This is the general idea of a report of the Soil Association of 16 September 2002, quoted in a series of newspapers, "OGM: Opinion Grossièrement Manipulée", InfOGM, Fondation Charles Léopold Meyer pour le progrès de l'homme, Paris , October 2002.
7 19 import permits for GMOs were issued before that date.
8 See "The bulldozer war", Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, May 2002.
9 Financial Times, London, March 6, 2003.
10 "US postpones biotech case against EU, enlists allies in WTO", Inside US Trade, Arlington, February 7, 2003.